Freud and Dr. Buddha

The Search for SelflessnessMark Epstein

ONE OF THE GREATEST PROBLEMS facing Western meditators is that their conceptual preparation for meditation practice is generally insufficient. Filled with psychological ideas derived from Freudian theory and struggling with psychological issues that are often incompletely resolved or not even addressed, Westerners engaged in meditation practice all too often are derailed by their own longings, conflicts, and confusion. As the late Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche affirmed, "It is said that someone who tries to meditate without a conceptual understanding of what he or she is doing is like a blind person trying to find the way in open country; such a person can only wander about, with no idea how to choose one direction over another."

There are now several common misconceptions about the key Buddhist notion of anatta, or egolessness. To begin with, many new meditators mistake egolessness for the abandonment of the Freudian ego. Conventional notions of ego, as that which modulates sexual and aggressive strivings, have led many Americans to mistakenly equate egolessness with a kind of primal scream in which the person is finally freed from all limiting constraints. Egolessness is understood here as the equivalent of Wilhelm Reich's orgasmic potency, and the ego is identified as anything that tenses the body, obscures the capacity for pleasurable discharge, or gets in the way of feeling "free." Popularized in the sixties, this view remains deeply embedded in the popular imagination. It sees the route to egolessness as a process of unlearning, of casting off the shackles of civilization and returning to a childlike forthrightness. It also tends to romanticize regression, psychosis, and any uninhibited expression of emotion.

Another popular misconception is that egolessness is some kind of oneness or merger, a forgetting of the self with a simultaneous identification with what lies outside the ego, a trance state or an ecstatic union. This view has strong roots—it is the LSD-influenced view—and the traditional psychodynamic explanation as well. Freud's friend, the French poet and author, Romain Rolland, was a devout follower of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Under his influence, Freud described the "oceanic feeling" as a sense of limitless and unbounded oneness with the universe that seeks the "restoration of limitless narcissism" and the "resurrection of infantile helplessness." Thus, egolessness is identified with the infantile state prior to the development of the ego, that is, that of the infant at the breast making no distinction between itself and its mother but rather merged in a symbiotic and undifferentiated union.

This formulation is complicated by the fact that there really are states accessible in meditation that do provide such feelings of harmony, merger, and loss of ego boundaries; but these are not the states that define the notion of egolessness. When concentration practices of one-pointedness are pursued with some perseverance, they lead inevitably to feelings of relaxation and tranquility that are soothing and seductive. Yet the distinctive attentional strategy of Buddhism is not one-pointedness but mindfulness, or bare attention "the clear and single-minded awareness of what happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception." It is this practice that in advanced stages focuses attention on the self-concept, on the experience of "I" in the meditator, and leads to the understanding of egolessness.

But psychoanalytic interpreters, and the naive meditators who have followed in their wake, have drawn inspiration only from the concentration practices. Freud was influenced by Rolland's experiences of Hindu meditation. Another prominent analyst, Franz Alexander, actually analyzed Buddhist texts newly translated into German in the 1920s, but he, too, looked only at passages that described concentration. "In this condition the monk is like a pool," he quoted, "filling and saturating himself completely from all sides with the joy and pleasurable feelings that are born out of the depths of absorption; so that not the smallest particle remains unsaturated. . . . No analyst can more fittingly describe the condition of narcissism than is done in this text. . . .It is the description of a condition which we have only theoretically reconstructed and named 'narcissism.'" In more recent years, Herbert Benson, in his Relaxation Response, has painted a picture of meditation based solely on accounts of concentration practices, and generations of meditators have aspired to dissolve into the pool of blissful feelings that would make them "at one" with the universe, or the Void. Yet egolessness is not a return to the feelings of infancy—an experience of undifferentiated bliss or a merger with the mother—even though many people may seek such an experience when they begin to meditate, and even though some may actually find a version of it.

A third and more interpersonal view of egolessness suggests a kind of subjugation of the self to the other. It is as if the idealized merger experience is projected onto interpersonal relationships in what the Gestalt therapists have called "confluence," or loss of interpersonal ego-boundaries. The problem here is that the reality of the other is accepted, while that of the self is denied. This is really a kind of thinly disguised masochism.

Michael Thibodeau

The psychoanalyst Annie Reich, in a classic paper on self-esteem regulation in women, describes this very well. "Femininity," she says, is often "equated with complete annihilation." The only way to recover needed self-esteem is to then merge or fuse with a glorified or idealized other, whose greatness or power she can then incorporate. For both sexes something similar exists in spiritual circles: the pressure to cast off attachment to one's own ego generates a confusion between the compassion that is supposed to grow out of egolessness, the so-called bodhicitta, with this more primitive over-identification with a glorified other. Meditators with this misunderstanding are vulnerable to a kind of eroticized attachment to teachers, gurus, or other intimates, toward whom they direct their desires to be released "into abandon." More often than not, they also remain masochistically entwined with these figures to whom they are trying to surrender.

A fourth common misconception, popular in so-called transpersonal circles, stems from a misreading of important papers by Ken Wilber and Jack Engler. The belief here is that egolessness is a developmental stage beyond the ego; that the ego must first exist and then be abandoned. This is the flip side of the belief that egolessness precedes the development of the ego—here it is seen as that which succeeds the ego.

THIS APPROACH implies that the ego, while important developmentally, can in some sense be transcended or left behind. Here we run into an unfortunate mix of vocabulary. The system referred to by these formulations is the Western psychodynamic psychology of ego development. Then there is a jump, or switch, to an Eastern-based, spiritual vocabulary that makes it seems as if the ego that has been formed is the same ego that is being abandoned. Yet listen to the Dalai Lama on this point: "Selflessness is not a case of something that existed in the past becoming nonexistent. Rather, this sort of 'self' is something that never did exist. What is needed is to identify as nonexistent something that always was nonexistent."

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